Archive for Tragedy

  • Rob Spectre
  • 28
  • Oct
  • 09

Lauded as a victory for equal rights, Barack Obama signed legislation today adding sexual orientation to the criteria constituting a federal hate crime.   Becoming law just over a decade after the bill’s eponymous victims – Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. – were both savagely killed because they were gay.  Many on the left welcomed it as a solid win for the agenda, one that was sorely needed following this summer’s shellacking.  Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solomonese went so far to call the law “our nation’s first major piece of civil rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.”

While the backs were patted and the champagne was popped in Washington over the landmark legislation, a community on the other side of the continent grapples with a tragedy of its own.  Outside a high school in Richmond, California, a 15-year-old girl was gang-raped for two and a half hours during a Homecoming dance.  Police are now reporting as many as 20 people were watching and no one – no one – did anything to stop it.

It was an act so obscene one is revolted by even speaking of it; a crime so hateful no language can adequately describe.

In anyone’s moral spectrum, the brutal beating of Matthew Shepard, the savage dragging of James Byrd Jr. and the gang-rape of a 15-year-old at her Homecoming dance are unimaginably evil.  Each are a vile uniquely human.  Each a trespass not only against one victim, but against the entire community in which he/she lives.

How is it, then, we would create a document declaring one more vulgar than the other?  How is it we can judge one of these criminals as more disgusting than the others?  In matters this grave, is creating a distinction between them not an obscenity itself?

The monsters capable of rendering such particularly despicable deeds seem to me to be beyond classification. They are a special evil for whom no laws can be made to discourage.  The motivations that drive these people aren’t going to be tempered by penalties and mandatory sentences.  They are so deeply seated and wrong they can not be fixed.  These people that did these things are broken.   Deciding the manner in which we cast them from society offers little repair.

I’ve never been able to reconcile the adjective and noun in “hate crime.”  Murder and rape are always crimes of hate, regardless of whatever thought was in the murderer’s and rapist’s head at the time.  Our laws can only broadly classify the severity of these broadly, with each case bringing with it a special horror, each sentence we levy a correction that came far too late.

For all the hours I’ve logged in the civil rights movement of our generation – equality for all – it is hard for me to view the Shepard law as a victory.  If we are going to distinguish socially-motivated violence then sexual orientation certainly belongs in that definition, but in so creating that distinction are we not implicitly cementing the differences we wish to eradicate into our laws?  Are we not conceding that little can be done to change the environments that allowed these tragedies to occur?

When considering these crimes, the element I find most nauseating are the communities that bore them.  The crowds that stood idly by, the voices that remained silent when that evil was perpetrated before them.  The people that did these things weren’t born wanting to visit this evil upon their victims.   That lack of regard for human life was learned in Laramie, Wyoming, in Jasper, Texas, in Richmond, California, and in all the depraved pockets of America that produce this kind of vile horror.  It was learned in these climates of hate, which remain beyond the reach of law to correct.

To give their work a new name seems to be postponing the effort to change the communities that enabled them to happen.  Just defining them feels to me like giving up.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 26
  • Aug
  • 09

When cable news and bipolar journalism decimated the ability of America’s legislature to pass law, there was one remaining with whom a deal could still get done.  Once the news cycle went 24 hour and the gate to mass consumption became $10 domain name, the professional politicians of America had their sausage making exposed.  In the crucible of public service, the heat from the media burned so brief and so bright in the last quarter century, rendering committed and principled men and women answering the call to public service into a gooey, lethargic lard. Getting that lard to move required either more heat or a skilled chef.

Now under fire every minute of every day with fragile careers that could end with a single newsbreak, the politician became the hardest gig in America.  Hard to get through decades of gerrymandering jacking up incumbency to 99% and harder still to keep with a federal law behind every handshake and a scandal hidden in every cocktail.  Working long hours for impossibly paltry wages, getting loaded every night to raise the money to run next year, suffering isolation for not doing the right favors, and getting crucified for doing the wrong ones  It’s a job with a million ways to fail and only a few to succeed.

Is it at all surprising that any organization of human beings would perform poorly in such conditions?  Calling it a culture that rewards inaction is inaccurate as it suggests anything at all earns reward.  Instead, it is a stacked system built on failure with its participants in a perpetual frenzy to pick the lesser of a dozen evils. In the America that’s open all day and all night, statesmanship gives way to survival.  Keeping the job became the job itself.

It wasn’t always so.  While no age of politics in America could be qualified as “golden,” there were fairly times that were better.  When discourse would vehement without being zealous.  When politics was tough without being cutthroat.  When two people could disagree all day long and still grab a Scotch before dinner.  When one could lose with pride and when one could win with magnanimity,  When the game of politics was still played by gentlemen and the stakes made swings that everyone could walk away from without crying.

With a career running almost a half century spanning the shift of American politics from civil service to psychotic circus, the last chef who could move the meal was the ranking senator from Massachusetts and fabled brother of Camelot, Edward Kennedy.   He folded his hand this morning at the age of 77.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 22
  • Aug
  • 09

“You’ve got to come by and do something about these plants.”

My sister was in the dirt maybe ten minutes before the funeral director gripped my arm to relay his botanical concern.  Stumbling through a thick fog of grief, a hundred-year-flood of human concern and fuck-stupid confusion, I couldn’t parse what the douchebag was talking about.  But then, this Midwestern ritual of death seemed to require a lot of clueless nodding.  What did it matter anyway, I supposed.  I felt like a terminal cancer patient whose gown flew open at the hospice talent show.  Such an enduring indignity was the public exposure of pain this naked, what was one more trepass in this humiliating experience?

What ends up being remembered from burying the beloved is largely beyond the control of the mourning.  You don’t end up remembering who came and who didn’t, the words of the eulogy or the color of the stuffed animals laid in her coffin.  You don’t remember a single word of comfort or solitary heartfelt card, the music they played at the wake or the names of any of the pallbearers.  Instead of remembering those debts of courtesy or those human angels suffering by your side, you end up remembering the stupidest shit.  Like picking up those goddamned plants.

A whole room in the parlor was full.  In this garden of sorrow the crop was bumper, with every conceivable variety of flora appropriate for the occasion represented.  I remember thinking that it looked like a clearance sale if death was a seasonal commodity and this were the weekend after Easter.  “Take what you want and we’ll donate the rest,” one of them said.

Photo: Daniel Austin

Photo: Daniel Austin

Donate?  To whom?  Who the fuck is in such a desperate way they need donated funeral plants?  Is there really some homeless guy thinking to himself that his crack pipe would be easier to put down were there a peace lily to oxygenate his cardboard box?  Is some Boy Scout den mother going to put an editorial in the village weekly thanking the funeral parlor as their jamboree campsite wouldn’t look complete without greenery out of a fucking wake?  Donate the rest.  I still don’t know what that meant.

But then another revolting choice had to be made.  Arranging a funeral is like holding your divorce proceedings while planning your wedding or, more appropriately, buying the car you’re testdriving off a cliff.  There are a thousand little decisions to be made which cannot be held for your fit of desperation.  From picking the box to cueing the playlist, it was skin crawling expectation after expectation for the departed’ family, a macabre spectacle of administration one is guaranteed to forever regret.  And this was yet another, selecting a botanical momento of my sister’s passing.

On my best day, I have as much business picking plants as I do haircuts, so I ended up deferring to one of the ushers.  He pulled up a rubber something-or-other, suitable for my classic New England apartment, low maintenance and elegant.  I can’t even remember how I got it back to Providence, whether I flew with it, we shipped it or my girlfriend drove it back.  I just recall it was there, sitting in my living room.

And I would neglect it for the next four years.

For a time, I had a girlfriend who could care for it and under her nuturing hands it thrived.  She would even have to repot it to accommodate its explosive growth.  We’d breakup, of course, and it’s suffering started shortly thereafter.  I would move to California and it would endure even more, going weeks without watering and dust a quarter inch thick collecting on its leaves.  It would sit outside my apartment door, ever drooping and sickly, a ward warning the cheap commuter complex that a true degenerate lived inside.

As my personal and professional lives would slow-mo crash into an intolerably step-frame trainwreck in the years after my sister died, this plant I didn’t was the physical manifestation of that decline.  Its leaves, once vibrant and bursting with promise, would rot and fall.  Its roots, once deep and firm, would release their grip on the earth below them and poke through the surface to gasp for moisture.  For years, I treated this plant like a bastard.  I let it suffer as I did in the frozen hell that followed our tragic union.

But for all that neglect, for a drought of care that lasted all this time, it never died.

This summer, I’ve taken to watering it more.  I’ve wiped off its leaves and even plugged a little fertilizer in the soil.  And, like it was waiting patiently for me to remember it, the plant responded.  Almost immediately, new shoots sprung off its stems and its roots dug back into the soil.  The pockmarks on its leaves would heal over with a healthy green and its base would blossom with new leaves.

But in between the old, healing leaves and the ambitious base remains a gap of four years.  A vacant space of solid stem obvious betraying a long period of neglect and lost potential.  Between that plant’s roots and its leaves is a naked admission of weakness, a scar that it will have to live with for so long as the sun shines.

But, this summer it is rebounding.  And I along with it.

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  • Rob Spectre
  • 07
  • Aug
  • 09

Each of us came of age in high schools perverted by pop culture.  Less institutions of education and more daycares for the commercially exploited and hopelessly confused, our generation was the first for whom adolescence was a prime market segment.  They were desperate social tempests kept in a constant roil from the conflict of the idyllic high school experience with which we were bombarded in television and film and the unglamorous, unsanitary business of educating the pubescent.  We were the bastard children sold since birth on the American Dream; the post-X set dreaming of 90210 while living so-called lives of depravity praying to be saved by the bell.

Our happy days were syndicated 23 minutes at a time.  Our Cold War was our lives.

With each generation, America’s youth must endure a geometrically growing gap between the high school they are sold and the high school in which they are enrolled.  The formula that began with Father Knows Best permutated every decade into ever more idealistic, less authentic versions of itself until by our birth the teen sitcom were as unattainable as it was pervasive. Like carbon copies each more faded than the last, our adolescence was when the high school drama became a format.  It was when the half-hour dramatic escapes of our parents became the 24-hour cable network nightmares of our peers.  What was a weekly hit show became copy/pasted into always-available, constantly-on genre.

We were the first kids who matriculated to the cheap nickelodeon of a mass-market America.

Shit scared of this frightening environment in which we were thrust, we grabbed for anything we could.  In the frantic thrashing that were each of our teenage years, the small pockets of calm came in unlikely sources.  The first spin of our all-time favorite record.  The first buzz from a stolen bottle of whiskey.  The first reading of “Harrison Bergeron.”

And, for many of us, the first time our older brothers or sisters or cousins or incredibly irresponsible uncles handed us a well-worn VHS copy of The Breakfast Club.  Though released a decade before our testicles descended or our tits grew, it was a finally a teen movie with which we could identify in the drowning tidal wave of unidentifiable teenmedia.  It captured unapologetically the lives we really lived.

Unlike Dawson’s pie-in-the-sky Creek or the everyone-gets-along Bayside High, these were real frightened youths with the real insane pressures we knew all about.  It, and the flicks we’d seek out like it in Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, showed our broken homes and our druggie friends.  It showed our alcoholic fathers and our overbearing mothers.  It reflected the insecurities that drove our principals to their insanity and exposed the bankrupt social mores that artificially kept us apart.

But most of all, at the end of 90 minutes of this-life-as-we-really-knew-it, it gave us what we needed most.  At the end the Weird Sciences and Ferris Bueller’s Day Offs, we got a dose of some medicine for the desperate and the message no one else would let us hear.  At the end of those movies, we knew that with a good soundtrack, the few friends we had and a refusal to be broken by these forces that would see us fail, we were going to make it through.

That was the vital lesson we learned from the alumni of Shermer High. That, in the end, everything was going to be okay.

High school is where you’re told who you are.  College is where you’re told who you can be.  Adulthood, ultimately, is the fairest reconciliation we can reach of the two – the best compromise we can eke out between our hangups and our ambition.

For folks our age, a hefty part of the manual that helped us come to terms with that compromise was written in the films written and directed by John Hughes.  He  died yesterday in New York at the age of 59.

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  • Hala V. Furst
  • 03
  • Aug
  • 09

It seems like it would be a hard thing to forget, like breathing.  Something so ingrained, so essential, that it makes up the very fiber of my being. And it does. But that’s why it’s easy to forget that I’m Palestinian. Whole days go by without me thinking about it once, without me even remotely remembering. That’s the luxury of being 2 generations past exile. I’m welcome here; no shadows darken the smiles of my neighbors, no questions pass through their eyes. They think I’m one of them. And I am. 

There was a time when I did nothing but think about it.  When anger and disbelief were my bread and water, when I attended meetings and rallies and had my name on every progressive middle-east peace listserve in the tri-state area.  I even spent summers during college working at a camp with kids from Israel and Palestine. But none of that made me any more Arab.  None of that made a bit of difference in the face of a cement wall covered with barbed wire.  It became easier to forget, to put that part of me to one side, to not live in constant anger.  I deleted the listserve updates, I changed the channel, I learned less than I should have about Obama’s plans for Palestine. I started taking only a casual interest, like any other American. 

Until I see a high-school friend’s photos from a trip to Israel on facebook, and I’m sucker-punched with memory. I can’t really put it aside- my family’s history isn’t a costume or even a faith that you use only on holidays. Those blue skies and barren hill tops should be mine, should be ours. Those churches and olive groves should be in the hands of the men and women that built them, that grew them. So I turn on the news, I read the emails, and the utter disbelief begins anew. Israel has started to annex east Jerusalem, throwing Arab families out of their city homes for settlements that are clearly no longer about making the dessert bloom.  We don’t just give them a “big hug,” as Aaron Miller, my one time boss at that camp calls it- we allow them to screw us and the Arab world again, and again, and again.  

My long-ago-friend goes on a sunny vacation, but I’m rocketed back to the place of shame and anger that I know I will revisit my whole life. Because the truth is, sometimes I want to forget I’m Palestinian.

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